The Lemelson Center had a remarkable 2017, with growth in research and education, and dynamic new public programming initiatives. We engaged 220,000 young people in invention activities in Draper Spark!Lab, while expansion of the Spark!Lab network to eight locations across the United States meant that we reached some 300,000 additional young minds nationwide. Public programming by the Center is showcasing diverse living inventors and their work. In the past year, our Innovative Lives programs fostered dialogue between the public and inventors on topics ranging from frontline medical care to the Super Soaker, and large festivals like Military Invention Day and ACCelerate drew tens of thousands of enthusiastic visitors. Through these and other programs, we are using history to encourage people to invent, tinker, and tweak. These skills are more important than ever considering the seemingly accelerating rate of technological change and the deep uncertainties we face regarding the future.
Even as we advance education and programming, research by the Lemelson Center team members and visiting fellows is studying innovation as a process, not just “Eureka” moments. We are turning more strongly to look at the institutional supports—or lack thereof—that bridge between ideas and markets. The Center’s work to document and preserve invention stories continues to pay attention to inventor notebooks and other primary sources, but also we are recording in-depth oral history interviews with venture capitalists and others involved in bringing ideas to markets. A more comprehensive look at “invention 360” is emerging from this work. One key finding is that while new ideas originate in unpredictable ways from curious minds, the resources to become an inventor and bring new technologies to markets are highly concentrated. At the Lemelson Center, we are showcasing the diversity of inventors today so that young people find role models to emulate. Also we are developing new research efforts to find and feature women and minority inventors who have stories to tell about how they were inspired to identify and then solve a variety of personal, community, and global problems.
As 2017 wound down, the Lemelson Center launched an ambitious and exciting research and exhibition plan on invention and sports. We are especially interested in exploring several key questions: Why do some sports inventions succeed immediately, and why do others fail? Do new technologies enhance or undermine the purity of competition and accessibility of sports? In what ways do sports inventions affect competitors, players, and consumers? Our research leading to a new exhibition in the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Hall of Invention and Innovation will especially focus on the interplay among inventors, athletes, sports federations, the media, and the public as the source of new technologies in sports but also as the arbiters of what is fair or unfair in both play and competition.
Looking at the present state of public dialogue on invention and innovation, it is easy to fear change and even easier to think that technology proceeds on its own imperative. But the perspective the Lemelson Center brings through research projects, education in Spark!Labs across the country, exhibitions, and diverse programs point to a bright future of invention for world needs and greater public engagement with innovation. To get there, we invite your help and participation!
Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director